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Can the Orioles Have a Winning 2011? (Part One)

It does not take Bill James to suggest that a winning season is built on scoring more runs than you allow and a losing season is built on giving up more runs than you score (though I suspect Bill James could tell you that if you asked him). The 2010 Orioles, for the record, allowed 172 more runs than they scored. So, the 2011 Orioles will need to improve by roughly 172 runs (through scoring more runs and/or allowing fewer runs) in order to break the franchise's long losing streak. Sometimes things are pretty simple, I guess.

We're dealing with ballpark figures here - it's definitely feasible for the Orioles to still have a winning record despite being outscored by their opponents. But they do need to be within spitting range of a balance of runs scored and allowed to hit .500.

Today let's just deal with the run scoring side of things. The 2010 incarnation of the Orioles scored only 613 runs, which was not only very poor compared to the rest of baseball (4th worst in fact), but it was also a rather precipitous drop-off from other recent vintages, including the 2008 birds who were (honestly, kind of shockingly) about as good as the New York Yankees at crossing the plate.

The optimist's takeaway: reason to believe in a bounce-back 2011!

A note: I'm going to be using solely one offensive statistic for this exercise: weighted on base average (wOBA). Despite its stupid acronym, wOBA is a remarkably simple and powerful one-stop offensive stat, and easy to find over at fangraphs. In a nutshell, it gives a different weight to each possible offensive event according to its expected run value (e.g. a walk is worth 0.72, while a home run is worth 1.95) and then divides the total of these weighted events by plate appearances. You can read more about wOBA here or here.

There are three categorical differences between the 2010 Baltimore offense and the 2011 model:

1) The 2010 Orioles left an above average amount of runners stranded on the bases. They only managed to bring around 27% of their baserunners, as compared to the league average of 30%. The 3% difference for the Orioles totals up to nearly 75 runs lost (counting that the hits that drive in those baserunners put more baserunners on).

That's totally remarkable to me. With an extra 75 runs scored, the sabrmetrically minded would peg the '10 squad at around 74 wins. That's definitely closer to the win total a lot of folks expected from the team last summer (I think my guess was a sad-to-call-it-optimistic 76 wins). An extra 75 runs turns an anemic offense into merely a slightly below average one. It also closes over a third of the gap between 2010 and .500.

I'm not sure what the exact statistical causes of having a low baserunners scored percentage are, but there is a red flag that jumps out. The Orioles weren't very good at hitting in general, with a team wOBA of .309 (23rd in baseball). Teams that hit poorly would be expected to strand more runners. The Orioles have the double-whammy of having an even worse team wOBA with runners on base (.296, 29th in baseball), making them the team with the worst degradation of hitting prowess once there's a guy standing on one of the bags.

Fortunately, there is good news here. The 2010 Orioles suffered a rather large drop-off in both overall wOBA and runners-on wOBA from the previous three years:

Orioles 2010 2009 2008 2007
wOBA .309 .327 .332 .328
runners-on wOBA .296 .340 .347 .334
runners scored % 27% 31% 32% 32%

Again: reason to believe in a bounce-back 2011!

It sort of feels like over-simplifying everything to just say that the 2010 Orioles underachieved on offense. But think about it: how many Orioles hitters really played up to even the standard they set in 2009? Roberts was hurt. Wieters, Jones, Pie, and Reimold took steps backwards. The offseason additions of Garret Atkins and Miguel Tejada blew up in our faces.Once the losing really got gong, it felt like everyone just...

Actually, forget all of that and consider just this: Ty Wigginton was the Orioles' All Star representative. That's the death-mark of underachieving right there.

2) The Orioles are, of course, replacing their starters at four (five if they sign Vladimir Guerrero)  positions:

Players - Replacements 2010 Player wOBA 2010 Replacement wOBA
Ty Wigginton - Derrek Lee .316 .340
Julio Lugo/Brian Roberts - Brian Roberts .297 .340
Cesar Izturis - J.J. Hardy .248 (worst in MLB) .313
Miguel Tejada/Josh Bell - Mark Reynolds .277 .328


A couple of things about this. For one thing, we're ignoring any aging (we'll get to it in a minute), and we're ignoring injuries, down-years, career years, and so on. We're also ignoring park effects and league effects. It also needs to be said that both Hardy and Roberts did not play anywhere near full years in 2010. So this is about as statistically invalid a method of estimation as I can think of.

Still: if we take away all of the plate appearances from Wigginton, Lugo, et al. and give them (magically!) to their 2011 counterparts who (magically!) play exactly the same as they actually did, the Orioles team wOBA increases from .309 (23rd in baseball) to .326 (14th in baseball), which fangraphs estimates at around 80 extra runs.

There is some overlap between the 80 (give or take) runs we got in part 2 and the 75 (give or take) runs we got in part 1, but not entirely. Unfortunately, I don't know what exactly the overlap would hypothetically be, but since this is just a sort of ballpark projection exercise, let's just go conservative and say that, before you look at aging, league, park, luck, and developmental effects, the 2011 Orioles look around 100 runs stronger at the plate than the previous iteration.

Which brings us to...

3) All of that stuff I just mentioned. And here, as I've been told quite often lately, is where we leave reality.How do you predict the 2011 batting lines of our young players who have stagnanted at the plate? How do you foresee bounceback years from veteran Derrek Lee, moving to the AL East for the first time in his career, or from (relative) youngsters Nolan Reimold and Mark Reynolds? How do you predict injury (or lack thereof) for anyone, but particularly injury worries like Felix Pie, Brian Roberts, and J.J. Hardy?

I won't try to give you answers for that. There are tons of projection systems out there, from the simple to the complicated to the unscientific crowd-sourcing ones. Here at CamdenChat we're even holding our own projection, so you can contribute all you want with your thoughts.

But I will give you this, a list of candidates for certain types of seasons:

Regression: Luke Scott, who is turning 33 this June, had a career year in 2010, making him a prime suspect for a not-quite-as-strong year in 2011. Brian Roberts of course had a lot of DL time in 2010, though he still hit at a solid level when he was on the field. He is however, on the wrong side of 30, as is Derrek Lee. Lee and Mark Reynolds are both moving to the tougher league for the first time in their careers.

Bounce-back: Lee and Reynolds both had years below their career standards, and both suffered from injuries throughout the year. Nolan Reimold had a lost year of doom and would be hard-pressed to repeat it.

Developmental: Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Felix Pie, Reimold, Reynolds, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy are all under 30 years old and all have room to develop. Obviously though, the younger kids (Jones and Wieters) have quite a bit more hope for growth than the 27 and 28 year olds.

Phew. That's a lot of words (and math) and we still sort of end up in a murky puddle of uncertainty. Well, that's baseball I guess. For what it's worth, adding 100 runs to the offense is a pretty solid and attainable benchmark, in my opinion, but there's definitely the possibility for more from the offense in 2011. Will 100 runs be enough to close the gap to .500 in 2011? Well, we still need to look at the run prevention side of things, so stay tuned for the next exciting episode (coming soon!).